Cybersecurity & Tech

U.S. Diplomacy Is a Necessary Part of Countering China’s Digital Authoritarianism

Justin Sherman
Tuesday, March 17, 2020, 1:18 PM

Contesting the rise and spread of digital authoritarianism cannot be done without concerted American reinvestment in diplomacy.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Editor's note: This article is part of a series of short articles by analysts involved in the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, among others, highlighting and commenting upon aspects of the commission's findings and conclusion.

The Trump administration recently unveiled its budget for Fiscal Year 2021. For those with an eye toward diplomacy, it’s a grim picture: $3.7 billion cut from the Department of State and international aid programs. The budget also eliminates discretionary overseas spending by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other State Department collaborators.

This is a problematic decision for many reasons, and those include its certain impact on the United States’s ability to diplomatically engage with other countries on digital issues. From global data governance questions to the administration’s lack of clear communication about Huawei, now is hardly the time to diminish diplomatic resources in the digital space. Digital diplomacy is important for trade; it’s important for national security; and it’s important for collaborating with other liberal democracies to establish and reinforce clear, democratic regulations and behavior around artificial intelligence and emerging surveillance issues.

On this last point of norm-setting, investing in digital diplomacy is particularly critical for countering the rise and spread of digital authoritarianism. Notably, Washington’s shrinking investment in digital diplomacy stands in stark contrast to that of Beijing.

The Chinese government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars (and ultimately may spend over one trillion) on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a campaign of construction projects, telecommunications investments, and a variety of other capacity- and influence-building efforts in countries ranging from Zimbabwe to Malaysia. The BRI fits into a broader pattern of Chinese investment in boosting its overseas image. As Ronan Farrow chronicles in his book “War on Peace,” “[China’s] spending on foreign assistance is still a fraction of the United States’ but the trend line is striking, with funding growing by an average of more than 20 percent annually since 2005.”

Digital issues are an integral component of this Belt and Road effort and exemplify the role diplomacy can play in the spread of digital authoritarianism. As it has become increasingly clear that the Belt and Road, like many countries’ diplomatic outreach campaigns, is not entirely the benign and peaceful project some Chinese officials might claim (for example, see Chinese-Pakistani cooperation on defense projects under the BRI), scrutiny of the project’s technology elements has risen.

Consider the deal between Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) firm CloudWalk and the government of Zimbabwe. Under the terms of the agreement—wrapped into China’s BRI—CloudWalk provides Zimbabwe, a country with a record of human rights abuses, facial recognition-powered mass surveillance capabilities. The agreement also includes CloudWalk receiving data back from Zimbabwe on faces with darker skin tones, so that it can better train its AI algorithms on a more diverse dataset than would otherwise be available in China. It’s unclear and unlikely that Zimbabweans have any recourse to control this data use.

The Zimbabwe-CloudWalk deal is one of many similar cases illustrating the overlapping factors at play around the Chinese government’s digital diplomatic outreach. Political factors (the Zimbabwe government’s desire for advancing surveillance technology) played a role, but so too did Beijing’s priority to achieve strategic goals by means of the Belt and Road Initiative. Where a government wanted the capabilities to better monitor its population, the Chinese government was happy to supply the necessary tools—and tools made in a country with a robust and world-leading technology sector, at that.

China’s investment in digital diplomacy matters because of how it’s coupled with, in this case and many others, exports of facial recognition software, internet traffic interception technologies, and other surveillance tools to despots. It matters because the Chinese government has even conducted training exercises for foreign governments on how to “manage” new information media—undoubtedly a coded word for spreading censorship. It matters because digital diplomatic efforts have enabled Chinese firms to expand their market reach globally, enabling practices such as information censorship at Beijing’s behest.

To be clear, this is not to sit in a glass house and throw stones—the United States and other liberal democracies need to do much more to stop companies incorporated within their borders from selling surveillance technologies to human rights abusers. Moreover, liberal democracies, the U.S. in particular, are hardly free from perceptions around the world that they engage in online surveillance as much as Beijing. Global reactions to the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks are but one demonstration of this fact. But should the U.S. want to counter the rise and spread of digital authoritarianism, spending on digital diplomacy and digital capacity-building efforts is an important part of the solution.

The U.S. should expand existing efforts on digital outreach and investment around the world, like USAID’s Digital Inclusion program that works to expand internet connectivity, or government collaboration with the United States Telecommunications Training Institute, which provides free training courses to low-resourced countries on telecommunications policy and management. Such efforts help to expand open internet access, as well as to educate on a free and open internet model.

Further investments in cyber capacity-building projects—especially in emerging market economies—could take the form of designing more cyber-related coursework for diplomatic training programs and organizing more tabletop exercises during major international gatherings. This would additionally counter Beijing’s rising influence in global conversations of how the internet and other digital issues should be understood.

Funding digital expertise at the State Department is also vital. The shrunken resources and influence of the State cyber coordinator has impeded the United States’s ability to engage on cyber-related issues at higher diplomatic levels. Convincing other countries to follow a more democratic line on digital issues—like with cybercrime agreements at the U.N., regularly used by China, Russia, and others as a smokescreen for digital authoritarianism—often hinges on having this kind of expertise on hand at the State Department. The Cyberspace Solarium Commission recently published recommendations in this vein as well: restructuring cyber capacity-building funding and creating a new cyber bureau led by an assistant secretary.

All in all, further study is needed on many aspects of so-called digital authoritarianism, including how liberal democracies may be engaging in the same practices they admonish countries like China for carrying out. But contesting the rise and spread of digital authoritarianism cannot be done without concerted American reinvestment in diplomacy.

Justin Sherman is a contributing editor at Lawfare. He is also the founder and CEO of Global Cyber Strategies, a Washington, DC-based research and advisory firm; a senior fellow at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, where he runs its research project on data brokerage; and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Subscribe to Lawfare